Painkiller slugfest could be expanding

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Advil, Tylenol rivals mull images

The marketing war between Advil and Tylenol, with each maligning the other's safety, now threatens to be joined by other pain relievers that see opportunity in keeping their images clean.

Competitors such as Procter & Gamble Co., marketer of Aleve, and Bayer Corp., marketer of Actron, are taking a keen interest in the mudslinging being waged by Tylenol and Advil. An executive who works on Actron said the brand may even choose to capitalize on the controversy directly in its advertising. BBDO Worldwide, New York, handles Actron.

Although Johnson & Johnson had questioned the safety of ibuprofen generically for months, things became heated after an American Home Products Corp. spot highlighted an alcohol-interaction warning on Tylenol labels, concluding it might be safer to take Advil. J&J placed defensive ads last week and AHP struck again, reprinting an ad from an individual who won an $8 million liver injury case against J&J, without mentioning its Advil product.

WELCOMING CEASE-FIRE

Executives at AHP and J&J would welcome a cease-fire. But more than a decade of bad blood, combined with the feeling that a company can't let its brand get kicked around in public, have so far kept the battle escalating.

"Long-term, this isn't great for business, but you can't let the neighborhood bully keep hitting you," said one exec close to AHP.

Tylenol ad spending rose 25% to $212 million in 1995, more than double Advil's static support of $103 million, according to Competitive Media Reporting. Young & Rubicam, New York, handles Advil; Saatchi & Saatchi Healthcare Connection has Tylenol.

Tylenol with more than 30% of the $2.7 billion market, lost nearly 5% share on sales of $811 million through last year. Second-ranked Advil was up almost 3% to 12.9% and $347 million, but that trailed private label's 22.2% share.

`BIG MARKETING QUESTIONS'

"This raises some big questions on marketing," said an exec inside J&J, who noted that Tylenol went through similarly fierce battles over aspirin in the 1970s.

A move by the Food & Drug Administration may be necessary to end the current feud.

In a letter to the Nonprescription Drug Manufacturers Association, Debra Bowen, director of the FDA's OTC drug evaluation division, wrote that the group found "a lack of uniformity in the use of an alcohol warning. We believe that this lack of uniformity is, in the least, confusing to consumers . . . We are asking that you inform your member companies of our upcoming action and encourage them to implement the proposed warning as soon as possible."

AVOIDING THE CONTROVERSY

An NDMA spokeswoman said the group passed the letter along to its members but decided "the issue is best handled by individual companies."

The campaigns shifted into national newspapers after all four major networks, citing concerns about consumer confusion on comparative safety claims, yanked Advil spots as well as a few Tylenol ads (AA, March 11).

ABC was alone among the networks in issuing an across-the-board policy excluding future comparative drug safety ads.

Copyright March 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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